The long history of the world’s most popular flavor begins in Mexico nearly 900 years ago. It was there that the Totonac Indians are believed to have cultivated the vanilla orchid indigenous to the tropical areas of Mexico and Latin America around 1115. When the Aztecs conquered the Totonacs in 1427, they discovered the essence of the black vanilla pod brought in flavoring and medicinal value to their culture. They were the first to use both vanilla and cocoa together to help with the flavor of their foods and drinks, often mixing them together. The mixture was much like our “hot chocolate” but they called it “xocolatl.” It is said that Aztec Emperor, Montezuma – was quoted saying xocolatl is a “Divine drink, which builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk for a whole day without food.”
In 1519, it is believed that Hernando Cortes was served a beverage mixture of cocoa and vanilla by Aztec Emperor Montezuma, most likely the xocolatl. Both flavors were so well received by the Spanish conqueror that he brought the cocoa and vanilla beverage back to Europe as a treasure from the New World. Europeans quickly fell in love with vanilla and found that it could be used in a wide variety of recipes and beverages. They imported the cured vanilla beans from Mexico until the mid-1800s as a luxury spice for the elite class.
With European expansion around the world, cuttings of the vanilla vine were transplanted to other tropical regions to see if it would grow outside of its native region: Mexico. The vines did grow, however did not bear fruit. Belgian botanist, Charles Morren concluded that this was because the Melipone Bee (native to Mexico), could not live anywhere else in the world. This bee was the only source of pollination for the vanilla orchid, so the practice of hand-pollination began. Hand pollination allowed vanilla pods to be produced in other tropical regions. Once this was discovered, the Bourbon Islands, controlled by the French and located near the tip of Madagascar, proved to be the best growing region for the vanilla vines. This is why more than 70% of the world’s vanilla is still produced in Madagascar and carries the name “Bourbon”; the dynasty that ended with the French revolution.
Over the past 100 years, vanilla has become more plentiful and is grown in numerous regions around the world to impart a unique flavor with every different region that produces the vanilla pod. It is also the most labor-intensive crop in the world. Nowadays there are now over 150 different varieties of vanilla orchid plants. Due to the world’s vanilla obsession, there are also many different vanilla products: gourmet vanilla extract, vanilla beans, vanilla extract, organic vanillas, and many more!